Mike Krzyzewski, college basketball’s most famous limo driver, returned Monday to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium and pronounced himself happy and healthy, but also humbled by stress-related exhaustion and the after-effects of October back surgery.
“I was waiting for someone to ask, ‘Are you going to coach again?’ ” a beaming Krzyzewski said. “I was going to say, ‘Yes , I am!’ ”
Krzyzewski last paced a sideline during a loss to Clemson here Jan. 4. Two days later, he told his team he was re-entering Duke Hospital for more tests. On Jan. 22, he announced he was through coaching for the rest of the season because of continuing back rehabilitation and the need for rest.
Since then, the Blue Devils have won three of their last 14 games, finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time since 1977 and, at 12-17 overall, are one defeat away from recording the most in school history. Unless they somehow win this week’s ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C.--and no No. 9 seed has ever won a game--the Blue Devils will miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in 12 seasons.
“I’m sure that if my staff and my team started out on Oct. 15 (the first day of practice) knowing that Mike Krzyzewski was not going to be with them, it would have been a much different story, wins and loss-wise,” said Krzyzewski, who has led Duke to two national championships and seven Final Fours in the past nine years. “They were placed in a very unusual situation.”
So was Krzyzewski, who said he was embarrassed about Monday’s news conference “because I don’t have some earth-shaking announcement.
“Hey, I don’t want to be a hot ticket,” he said. “I just want to coach basketball and get on with things.”
It was the possibility of a Krzyzewski temblor--A resignation speech? Something worse?--that attracted a media contingent of nearly 120 reporters, photographers, radio broadcasters and television crews to the north baseline floor of storied Cameron.
Fifteen seasons ago, when Krzyzewski was introduced as Duke’s coach, there were about 20 reporters in attendance. Now this.
Sitting behind a small table atop a makeshift stage, his 1992 NCAA title ring sparkling under the bank of TV lights, Krzyzewski said he had been foolish to try to coach only 10 days after his Oct. 21 surgery for a ruptured disk. The hasty return, he said, combined with his demanding work schedule and his age, 48, resulted in exhaustion.
“I never had that before in my life,” he said. “And you can be damn sure I never will again. It’s revealing to me. It shows me that you can have limits, no matter who the hell you are.”
It also shows what happens when a high-profile coach such as Krzyzewski waits two months to talk. As his absence grew, so did the number of rumors involving his departure.
“Any of you watch David Letterman?” he said. “I have a top-10 list for rumors. Nah, I don’t have that. I think when you coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference and you’ve been around awhile, rumors are part of the game and actually are kind of funny.
“I know most of the people out there did not believe that I was doing some crazy things. I think there was some concern about cancer and things like that. But there was concern on my part. When you get to that point where you’re just so tired and you’re exhausted, you wonder, ‘Is it just my back?’ ”
Krzyzewski, who has received thousands of letters of support--and an assortment of back braces, back remedies and home-grown herbs--said he considered resigning. Then again, it wasn’t the first time the idea had crossed his mind.
“There had been points throughout my career where I thought about not returning to coaching,” Krzyzewski said. “During the first couple of weeks after coming back after leaving the hospital, I was concerned about just being healthy again. I want to coach again and all of my plans are to coach again and come back, but during that time period I was not ready to do anything, except to get better.”
Krzyzewski’s return is not full-time. He met with his team early Monday evening and might coach today’s practice. He might also coach again Wednesday, but he said he won’t be traveling to Greensboro for Duke’s first-round game Thursday against North Carolina State.
And after that . . .
“I hope to have another meeting Sunday, which will mean that we’re still playing,” he said.
Imagine that. The Blue Devils back in the NCAA’s and Krzyzewski there with them.